Tuesday, 6 November 2007

The Normans in Southern Italy: The Normans and the Papacy

The mid- to late-eleventh century saw major changes in the position of the Papacy. These changes were both political and spiritual and historians have called them, perhaps rather extravagantly the ‘Gregorian revolution’.

  • The political dimension to this ‘revolution’ concerned the degree to which the Papacy was free from temporal control, especially from successive German emperors who claimed to have some ill-defined but politically real control over who should become pope. The pope was both a spiritual leader (as leader of the Catholic Church) and temporal leader (over the Papal States). In both areas, he needed some ‘protection’ from attack. The critical question was who would provide this and at what price. The result was that there were often two ‘popes’ in this period both claiming to be the ‘true’ pope often appointed by different rulers for their own political motives (pope versus antipope).
  • The spiritual dimension to this ‘revolution’ concerned several things. First, successive popes from Leo IX sought to reform clerical abuses within the Church, especially simony and concubinage. Secondly, there was the question of lay investiture or churchmen being granted their benefices by lay people. For example, the local landowner might claim the right to appoint the local parish priest and so on upwards to the pope himself. Thirdly, the pope sought to establish his primacy over the Church.

The critical question is the role played by the Normans in this process and the extent to which it aided in their conquest of southern Italy. Initially seen as a threat to the Papacy under Leo IX, leading to the papal defeat at Civitate in 1053, the Normans were reconciled with the Papacy under Nicholas II at Melfi in 1059 becoming ‘protectors’ of the Papacy under Gregory VII and Victor III.

The German perspective to 1056

Under Conrad II (1024–39), the first member of the Rhine-Frankish house known as the Salians, the kingdom of Burgundy fell finally under the overlordship of the German crown, and this tough and formidable emperor also renewed German authority in Italy. His son and successor, Henry III (reigned 1039–56), treated the empire as a mission that imposed on him the tasks of reforming the papacy and of preaching peace to his lay vassals. Without possessing any very significant new resources of power, he gave to his authority an exalted and strained theocratic complexion. Yet, under him, the last German ruler to maintain his hegemony in Western Europe, the popes themselves seemed to become mere imperial bishops. He deposed three of them, and four Germans held the Holy See at his command; but lay opposition to the emperor in Germany and criticism of his regime over the church were on the increase during the last years of his reign[1].

More than any other feudal society in early medieval Europe, Germany was divided and torn by the revolutionary ideas and measures of the reformed papacy. Beginning with the pontificate of Leo IX (1048–54), one of Henry III’s nominees, the most determined and inspired spokesmen of ecclesiastical reform placed themselves at the service of the Holy See. Only a few years after Henry III’s death (1056), they agitated against lay authority in the church, founded on proprietary rights. They regarded the laity as passive partakers of the sacraments and denied the supernatural status of kingship. Priests, including bishops and abbots, who accepted their dignities from lay lords and emperors at a price, according to the reformers, committed a sin; for these earthly powers could not rightly confer churches at all, nor could they own them. They believed, moreover, that thorough reforms could be brought about only by the exaltation of the papacy so that it commanded the obedience of all provincial metropolitans and was out of the emperor’s and the local aristocracy’s reach.

The endless repetition of the reformers’ teachings in brilliant pamphlets and at clerical synods spread agitation in Italy, Burgundy, and Lotharingia, all parts of the empire. Their new programme committed the leaders of the movement to a struggle for power because it struck at the very roots of the regime to which the German church had grown accustomed and on which the German kings relied. The vast wealth that Henry IV’s predecessors had showered on the bishoprics and abbeys would, if the new teaching prevailed, escape his control and remain at the free disposal of prelates whom he no longer appointed. Under Roman authority the churches were to be freed from most of the burdens of royal protection without losing any of its benefits. Many in Rome did not shy away from the consequences of their convictions. Their leader Hildebrand, later Pope Gregory VII (1073–85), was ready to risk a collision with the empire.

Henry IV was not yet six years old when his father died in 1056. The full impact of the Gregorian demands, coming shortly after a royal minority, a Saxon rising, and a conspiracy of the south German princes, has often been regarded as the most disastrous moment in Germany’s history during the Middle Ages. In fact, the German church proved thoroughly unreliable as an inner bastion of the empire even before Rome struck. Its leaders, Anno and Adalbert, archbishops of Cologne and of Hamburg–Bremen respectively, shamelessly exploited their hold over the young king by hunting for spoils out of the imperial demesne. In 1074 and 1075, Gregory proceeded against simony (the buying and selling of church office) in Germany and humiliated the aristocratic episcopate by summonses to Rome and sentences of suspension. These papal actions demoralised and shook the German hierarchy. The prelates’ return to their customary support of the crown was not disinterested, nor wholehearted, nor unanimous.

Conrad II

Born c. 990, died June 4th 1039, Utrecht, Germany. Conrad was German king (1024–39) and Holy Roman emperor (1027–39) and founder of the Salian dynasty. During his reign, he proved that the German monarchy had become a viable institution. Since the survival of the monarchy was no longer primarily dependent on a compact between sovereign and territorial nobles, it was henceforth invulnerable to prolonged rebellion on their part.  Conrad was the son of Count Henry of Speyer, who had been passed over in his inheritances in favour of a younger brother. Henry was descended, through the marriage of his great-grandfather Conrad the Red to a daughter of Emperor Otto, from the Saxon house. Left poor, Conrad was brought up by the Bishop of Worms and did not receive much of a formal education; but, conscious of the deprivations suffered by him and his father, he matured early. Prudent and firm, he often displayed great chivalry as well as a strong sense of justice, and he was determined to gain the status that fortune had denied him. In 1016, he married Gisela, the widowed duchess of Swabia and a descendant of Charlemagne. Conrad, however, was distantly related to Gisela. When strict canonists took exception to the marriage, Emperor Henry II, who was jealous of the growth of Conrad’s personal influence, used their findings as an excuse for forcing Conrad into temporary exile. The two men later became reconciled, and, by the time Henry II died, in 1024, Conrad presented himself to the electoral assembly of the princes at Kamba on the Rhine as a candidate for the succession. After prolonged debates, the majority voted for him, and he was crowned king in Mainz on September 8th 1024.

Intelligent and genial, Conrad was also fortunate. Soon after his election, even the minority opposition was persuaded to pay their homage. Early in the following year, the sudden death of Boleseaw I the Brave of Poland, a tributary to the German monarchy who had styled himself an independent king, spared Conrad the necessity of military interference. In Germany a rebellion fomented by nobles and relatives of Conrad was joined by many lay princes of Lombardy; and, although the Italian bishops paid homage at a court in Constance in June 1025, the lay princes sought to elect William of Aquitaine as anti-king. But, when the King of France refused his support, the rebellion collapsed. Early in 1026, Conrad was able to go to Milan, where Archbishop Ariberto crowned him king of Italy. After brief fighting, Conrad overcame the opposition of some towns and nobles and managed to reach Rome, where he was crowned emperor by Pope John XIX on Easter 1027. When a renewed rebellion in Germany forced him to return, he subdued the rebels and imposed severe penalties on them, not sparing members of his own family.

Conrad not only showed strength and incorruptible justice in maintaining his power but also displayed enterprise in legislation. He formally confirmed the popular legal traditions of Saxony and issued a new set of feudal constitutions for Lombardy. On Easter Sunday 1028, at an imperial court in Aachen, he had his son Henry elected and anointed king. In 1036 Henry was married to Kunigunde, the daughter of King Canute of England. Eventually, he became inseparable from his father and acted as his chief counsellor. Thus, the succession was virtually assured, and the future of the new house looked bright.  In the meantime, Conrad had been compelled, after all, to campaign against Poland in 1028. After severe fighting, Mieszko, Boleseaw’s son and heir was forced to make peace and surrender lands that Conrad’s predecessor had lost. Even so, Conrad had to continue to campaign in the east and in 1035 he subdued the heathen Liutitians. Although occupied intermittently in the east, Conrad was able to gain political triumphs in the west. Earlier, the childless king Rudolf of Burgundy had offered the succession to his crown to Emperor Henry II, who, however, died before Rudolf. Thus, when Rudolf died in 1032, he left his kingdom to Conrad over the opposition of the Burgundian princes, who two years later, on August 1st 1034, paid homage to Conrad at Z├╝rich.  Although Conrad’s relations with his son remained close, King Henry at times showed independent initiative. He once concluded a separate peace with King Stephen of Hungary and on another occasion gave his oath to Duke Adalbero of Carinthia never to side against him. Thus, when Conrad fell out with Adalbero in 1035, Henry’s oath severely strained relations between father and son. Conrad managed to overcome his son’s partisanship only by humbling himself before him. In the end, Conrad’s determination prevailed, and Adalbero was duly punished.

In 1036 Conrad appeared for a second time in Italy, where he proceeded with equal vigour against his old ally, Archbishop Aribert of Milan. Italy was rent by dissensions between the great princes, who, together with their vassals (the capitanei) had suppressed both knights and the burghers of the cities, the valvassores. Conrad upheld the rights of the valvassores, and, when Aribert, claiming to be the peer of the emperor, rejected Conrad’s legislative interference, Conrad had him arrested. Aribert managed to escape, however, and succeeded in raising a rebellion in Milan. Through luck and skillful diplomacy, Conrad succeeded in isolating Aribert from his Lombard supporters as well as from his friends in Lorraine. Conrad was thus able to proceed in 1038 to southern Italy, where he installed friendly princes in Salerno and Aversa and appointed the German Richer as abbot of Montecassino.  On his return to Germany the same year along the Adriatic coast, his army succumbed to a midsummer epidemic in which both his daughter-in-law and his stepson died. Conrad himself reached Germany safely and held several important courts in Solothurn (where his son Henry was invested with the kingdom of Burgundy), in Strassburg, and in Goslar. He fell ill during the following year (1039) and died.

Emperor Henry III

Born October 28th 1017; died October 5th 1056; duke of Bavaria (as Henry VI, 1027-41), duke of Swabia (as Henry I, 1038-45), German king (from 1039), and Holy Roman emperor (1046-56), member of the Salian dynasty.  Henry was the son of the emperor Conrad II and Gisela of Swabia. He was more thoroughly trained for his office than almost any other crown prince before or after. With the Emperor’s approval, Gisela had taken charge of his upbringing, and she saw to it that he was educated by a number of tutors and acquired an interest in literature. In 1036 Henry married Gunhilda, the daughter of King Cnut of England, Denmark, and Sweden. Because her father had died shortly before, the union with this frail and ailing girl brought with it no political advantages. She died in 1038, and the emperor Conrad died the following year.  His 22-year-old successor as German king resembled him in appearance. From his mother Henry inherited much, especially her strong inclination to piety and church services. His accession to the throne, unlike that of his two predecessors, did not lead to civic unrest, but his reign was burdensome from the beginning. Probably over questions of principle, the self-willed emperor quarrelled with the aging Gisela during her last years. He devoted his energies above all to the contemporary movement to bring an end to war among Christian princes, although his own policies were not always pacific. In possession of the duchies of Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia, and Carinthia, he had attempted to carry on his father’s policy of supremacy in the east and, in fact, attained sovereignty over Bohemia and Moravia.

It may have been at this time that Henry, prematurely believing he had reached the zenith of his power, displayed openly, as if it were a matter of governmental policy, his leanings toward the clerical-reform party. Intending to re-create a theocratic age like that of Charlemagne, he failed to realise that this could be done only as long as the papacy was powerless. Still a childless widower, he married Agnes, the daughter of William V of Aquitaine and Poitou, in 1043. The match must have been intended primarily to cement peace in the west and to assure imperial sovereignty over Burgundy and Italy, and Agnes’ total devotion to the church reform advocated by the Cluniac monasteries probably confirmed Henry in his decision to take her for his wife. In November 1050 she bore him a son, who later became the emperor Henry IV. There followed another boy, Conrad, and three daughters. What Henry still lacked was the highest honour -- his coronation as emperor at the hands of the pope.

When Henry reached Rome in 1046, three rivals were claiming the papacy. Henry wanted an Italy in which German supremacy was uncontested, and he wanted to receive the imperial crown from unsullied hands. He convoked a synod at Sutri, which, at his bidding, elected as the new pope a German, Suidger bishop of Bamberg, who was inaugurated as Clement II. On the same day the new pope crowned the imperial couple. Rome became an imperial city, and the control over the church (for example, the decisive vote in future conclaves) passed into the hands of the German king. In succeeding years Henry made use of this right to appoint a pope three more times. When the Normans were beginning their conquest of Calabria, Henry did not intervene to any extent in southern Italy. Instead he left this problem to Pope Leo IX, who was defeated by the Normans.

Believing that the basis of his power was secure, the Emperor expected to be as successful with his internal projects as he had been in foreign affairs; but this was not to be the case. He could not carry out his ecclesiastical reforms in Germany or its neighbouring territories because he was virtually without friends among the clergy. He was increasingly opposed by the Scandinavian Church and by that of the Saxons. Also, he had to contend during most of his reign with Godfrey II, duke of Upper Lorraine, whom he repeatedly pardoned instead of disciplining. There was unrest everywhere. In 1054-55, dukes Conrad of Bavaria and Welf III of Carinthia attempted to overthrow Henry’s rule through a widely spread conspiracy. Conrad, who had fled to Hungary, managed to subvert that country to such an extent that German influence remained permanently weakened. Although resistance against him stiffened with time, Henry continued to rule with moderation. Perhaps because he was aware of a lessening of his powers, his actions became haphazard. Instead of holding on to duchies that he had inherited, he entrusted them to others; but he chose badly and seldom acted decisively against his disloyal feudatories. He no longer inspired fear in his opponents: the Saxon and south German lay nobility, the alliance between Lorraine and Tuscany, the increasingly independent papacy, and the increasingly aggressive Normans.

Opponents of the Emperor’s policy thought it was excessively indulgent toward the church and hostile toward the lay princes. Some of this criticism was voiced among the ranks of the ecclesiastical reformers. Matters had come to such an impasse that Henry no longer pleased anyone. His demands on the people to support his military strength were heavy from the beginning, and his revenues from inheritances and confiscations were also considerable. If the empire’s basic wealth did not increase in his reign, it was because he used it to fulfil the demands of his clerical friends, even as he bestowed duchies on lay nobles in order to appease them. It is not surprising that, under these circumstances, he was compelled to find other sources of revenue by seeking credits, foreclosing mortgages, and looking after the interests of his treasury when conferring high imperial offices or church benefices. The abolition of simony (the sale of church offices) was difficult even for as high-principled a ruler as Henry, and, as a result, his enemies accused him of greed. According to some sources, in his old age Henry was rumoured to have become “untrue to himself” and inaccessible to the common people; he was reported to have refused to grant a judicial hearing to “the poor.” In contrast, in the early years of his reign, he could not be praised enough for his zeal in the administration of justice.


[1] Good general surveys of the period include: Geoffrey Barraclough (edited and translated), Medieval Germany, 911-1250: Essays by German Historians, two volumes, Oxford, 1938, Geoffrey Barraclough, The Origins of Modern Germany, New York, 1946, Horst Fuhrmann, Germany in the High Middle Ages, translated Timothy Reuter, Cambridge, 1986, J. B. Gillingham, The Kingdom of Germany in the High Middle Ages (900-1200), London, 1971, Karl Leyser, Rule and Conflict in an Early Medieval Society: Ottonian Saxony, London, 1979; reprint, 1989. Also see the collections of Leyser’s essay: Medieval Germany and Its Neighbours (900-1250), London, 1982 and Communications and Power, London, 1990. Boyd Hill, Medieval Monarchy in Action: The German Empire from Henry I to Henry IV, London, 1972 includes a variety of sources on the later Ottonian and early Salian monarchs. Theodor Mommsen and Karl Morrison (edited and translated), Imperial Lives and Letters of the Eleventh Century, New York, 1962 contains a variety of sources on the Salian emperors.

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